Making Cultural Evolution Even More Evolutionary: Comment on Waring and Tremblay

Waring and Tremblay have articulated the essential role of evolutionary analysis in addressing the many global environmental crises we face. Their contribution is particularly important in that it broadens evolutionary thinking to include non-genetic evolution and concepts like multi-level selection and biased cultural transmission. In this brief comment, I make the case that the evolutionary perspective on policy needs to be broadened even further by learning from cultural evolution in other species and by recognizing that the conflict between what’s best for the individual and what’s best for the group goes both ways—what’s good for the group is not necessarily good for the individual.

Darwin evoked the ire of Victorian society by asserting that humans are subject to the same laws of the natural world as other species. Using several distinct lines of evidence, from molecular genetics to morphology to the fossil record, contemporary biology has established that humans share a common ancestor with all other life forms on the planet. We share 99% of our DNA with our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. The genetic code of all living organisms, from bacteria to humans, is basically the same. All credible biologists share the view that humans are not a unique physical creation. But when it comes to culture, there is still a widespread belief that humans hold a special place in the universe. My colleague Lisi Krall and I have called this “the false allure of human exceptionalism.” It is still common for serious scholars to assert that humans have a “moral psychology” not present in other animals, or that human emotions are unique, or, as most of my fellow economists believe, human ingenuity and technology allows us to ignore the environmental constraints faced by other species. But in fact, other species have cultural traits that are transmitted and modified according to many of the same rules that apply to human societies. Carl Safina has documented some of these in his recent book Beyond Words—What Animals Think and Feel. For example, killer whale families form “pods” whose members use a unique set of specific vocalizations not used by other pods. Several pods are organized into “clans” that use a set of vocalizations unique to that clan. Moreover, clans that occasionally socialize, called “communities,” use vocalizations unique to that community. Communities do not socialize with other communities. There is abundant evidence that many species have complex social structures, complex communication structures, and shared cultural values. Yet, we have been reluctant to put these on a par with human institutions. Safina (page 281) writes:

We’re obsessed with filling in the blank of a Mad Libs line that goes: “____ makes us human.” Why? Scratch and sniff the “what makes us human” obsession and you get a strong whiff of something that could fit into that blank: our insecurity. What we’re really saying is “Please tell us a story that distances us from all other life.” Why? Because we desperately need to believe we are not just unique—as all species are—but that we are so very special, that we are resplendent, transcendent, translucent, divinely inspired, weightlessly imbued with eternal souls. Anything less induces dread and existential panic.

Social animals, from wolves, to elephants, to killer whales, have evolved a variety of forms of social organization and leadership styles to deal with the same problems humans face—how to make a living, and how to most effectively structure group behavior to insure continuity and cohesion. Culture is not unique to humans and we should expand our universe of examples of cultural evolution.

Theories of group selection evolved from discussions about the evolution of altruism. When natural selection is viewed only from the perspective of an individual’s genes, pure altruism seems impossible. Altruism reduces the fitness of an individual, and altruists lose out in the struggle for survival. But the survival of many species depends on the survivability of the group they belong to. If the group doesn’t survive, then neither does an individual within that group. So selfish individuals may outcompete altruistic individuals, but groups with more altruists outcompete groups with fewer altruists. One lesson is that what’s good for the individual may not be good for the group. The positive social implications of this insight are obvious. It pays to cooperate and be nice to others. This is a major theme in the cultural evolution literature.

But there is also a dark side to the “sacrifice for the good of the group” story. One of the most successful major transition in evolutionary history is the emergence of ultrasociality—mega-societies characterized by a complex division of labor and highly coordinated economic activities. Ultrasocial insects comprise only 2% of insect species yet they comprise over half of total insect biomass. Likewise, humans comprise most of the earth’s vertebrate biomass. But ultrasociality comes at a cost, both for ecosystems and for the individuals within the superorganism. Ultrasocial entities, like bee hives, function as superorganisms and the individuals that compose them are expendable for the good of the group. Humans are not ants or termites, but we can see that human society is well along the path to ultrasociality.

Today, the global market economy can be seen as a kind of ultrasocial superorganism whose goal of economic growth and expansion takes precedence over the well-being of individuals. More and more, the natural world, human individuals, and human institutions are being harnessed to feed the economic growth machine. Waring and Tremblay point to the change in fishing methods in Fiji to illustrate the importance of group-level institutions for sustainability. One side of the story is that group-level institutions worked to ensure sustainable fishing in traditional Fiji society. With the introduction of markets, the social controls imposed by chiefs were eroded, and the incentives for individual fisherman promoted overharvesting. Group-level cooperation gave way to competition among individuals. But another interpretation is that small-group institutions that promoted sustainability gave way to the higher-level needs of the market superorganism. Individual behavior came to be driven not by community needs but the needs of an even higher-level entity—the market economy. Unlike local communities in traditional societies, the sustainability of the global market is not dependent upon the sustainability of any particular ecosystem or species.

The policy implications of human ultrasociality are profound. The most important perhaps is that the invisible hand of the market arises not from bottom-up individual actions but rather from the top-down requirements of the global economy. Insect biologists call this “control without hierarchy.” Causation is downward, not upward. The needs of the market override the well-being of individuals. The Market becomes the ultimate information processor and ultimate allocator of human labor and resource allocation. The neoliberal economist and co-founder of the Mont Pelerin Society, Friedrich Hayek, stated this clearly:

It was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of civilization… The refusal to yield to forces which he can neither understand nor can recognize as the conscious decisions of an intelligent being is the product of an incomplete and therefore erroneous rationalism. It is incomplete because it fails to comprehend that co-ordination of the multifarious individual efforts in a complex society must take account of facts no individual can completely survey.

Hayek was correct to view the market economy as a complex, continually-evolving product of natural selection. But he failed to see that what is good for the market superorganism is not necessarily good for the individuals that comprise it. “Freedom” should mean more than submitting to the will of the market. Humans did not become “more free” as the constraints imposed by traditional societies were broken. They became more constrained as their well-being and survival depended on the requirements of the market economy. Neoliberalism is the philosophy of an ant colony, not of a desirable human society. The market may be a “natural” evolutionary system, but “natural” does not mean “good” from a human perspective and evolution cannot ahead. We need to recognize that “group beneficial” outcomes are not the same as “superorganism beneficial” outcomes. As Waring and Tremblay argue, sustainable environmental policies do not spontaneously appear without active policy direction. But the conflict between sustainability and the market’s insatiable need for growth and resources should be acknowledged.


Gowdy, J. and L. Krall. 2015. “The Economic Origins of Ultrasociality” Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press).

Gowdy, J. and L. Krall. “Disengaging from the Ultrasocial Economy: The Challenge of Directing Evolutionary Change.” Response to commentators. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press).

Hayek, F. 1944. The Road to Serfdom. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Safina, C. 2015. Beyond Words – What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Henry Holt.




Published On: November 16, 2015

John Gowdy

John Gowdy

Dr. Gowdy’s areas of interest include Ecological Economics, Evolutionary Economics, Welfare Theory and Policy, and Behavioral Economics. Within these sub-fields of economics his current work is in the areas of biodiversity valuation, climate change, and sustainable development in South Asia. John is past president of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics and current President of the International Society for Ecological Economics. He has been a Fulbright scholar at the Economic University of Vienna, Leverhulme Professor at Leeds University and a visiting scholar at the Autonomous University in Barcelona, the University of Zurich, the Free University of Amsterdam, the University of Queensland and Tokushima University. He has published more than 150 academic articles and authored or co-authored 10 books. His most recent books are Microeconomic Theory Old and New: A Student’s Guide(Stanford U. Press, Spring 2010, Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature, co-authored with Carl McDaniel, University of California Press, and Frontiers in Ecological Economic Theory and Application, Edward Elgar Press, co-edited with Jon Erickson.

Dr. Gowdy’s contact information can be found on his Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute homepage.


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